Editorial – Áine Kelly-Costello, Focus Editor

Over the past few years at Blind Low Vision NZ, since the current Chief Executive commenced in 2019 and installed a mostly new management team, I have felt wave upon wave of concern and sadness about the direction of the organisation, about the treatment of staff, and about the downstream effects on the blind, vision-impaired, low vision and deafblind people the organisation is meant to serve. This feeling is one mutually shared by a huge many within the blindness community who have either worked at, or been following goings-on within BLVNZ during this period.

Focus is the magazine of record of the country’s largest blindness advocacy organisation. If any publication ought to hold our community’s primary service provider to account, it’s this one.

It’s time to say the quiet part out loud. A systemic, no-holds-barred overhaul of BLVNZ’s management style and values cannot come soon enough. BLVNZ can and must be a service provider, managed with integrity, whose bread and butter are high quality blindness services delivered by staff, including staff from our own community, who are happy in their work and have the skills and training to excel at their jobs. This ask is far from radical, but the change needed to implement it is radical indeed.

Across the board, the sheer quantity of redundancies, restructure, redeployments and staff feeling unable to work at BLVNZ any longer have combined to run down the institutional knowledge many long-serving staff held which served as the bedrock of consistently high-quality specialist blindness services.

Over the past couple of years, most of the BLVNZ members who worked at the organisation have left. To my knowledge, the remaining number stands in the low teens.

What’s more, none of the Executive Leadership team (BLVNZ Management) are blind. For a blindness service provider, creating a work environment which is untenable for people who come from the community the organisation supposedly serves is shameful.

Many staff, clients and members who’ve been directly impacted have shared their feedback in detail with appropriate channels for doing so, including with the Independent Inquiry, with BLVNZ Management or with the BLVNZ (RNZFB )Board including by posing questions to the 2021 and 2022 AGMs. According to the 2022 AGM Minutes, in the year to 30 June 2022, a total of 39 staff also accessed Employee Assistance Programme Services. However, feedback directed to BLVNZ Management and to the $250,000 Independent Inquiry has been largely ignored or overlooked.

Over these years, so many of us have worked hard to be constructive in the accountability process. Indeed, this is my fourth issue of Focus as Editor and only now am I writing such a direct call for an overhaul. First I tried reporting in issue-by-issue fashion on the equipment shop, on the counselling service losing its way, on accessing the library, and by publishing a piece from Mary Schnackenberg about the disregard for the perspectives of Auckland consumer organisations and groups during the demolition of Awhina House and shifting of premises.

This time, I was planning to write about the funding cuts and managerial dictums which over the past year have decimated Accessible Format Services (AFS). I will stay light on detail for the privacy and safety of past and present staff. But it is relevant to members to know that most of the Ministry of Education contract for accessible formats moved from BLVNZ to Blind and Low Vision Education Network NZ (BLENNZ) mid last year, significantly reducing available funding. The AFS team currently stands at less than half of its previous staff numbers and member requests for transcription are now at the bottom of the priority order behind paid requests.

In addition, when the Braille library lost its Awhina House home and moved to the smaller Homai premises, an opportunity to give away scores of Braille books to countries with fewer Braille resources than Aotearoa was not taken up. All these books were thrown away. Now hard-copy Braille is produced on-demand and members can choose to return or keep the books. In another move not notified to members, the youth library, which also houses children’s books, has moved to BLENNZ.

Meanwhile, the Contact Centre, set up at the behest of members back in 2013 so that they could talk directly to other human beings and not wade through automated menus, is (re)trialling an automated menu system. You’ll hear that menu if you call BLVNZ on 0800 24 33 33. 

That said, referring to this change as a “trial” is questionable as there appears to have been no communication or process requesting member feedback nor consultation prior to the change. In recent times, not all vacated Contact Centre staff roles have been refilled.

Staff leaving without replacement is not a phenomenon unique to the Contact Centre. Pacific Services had long been a thriving cultural service with strong relationships with Pacific clients, aiga and BLVNZ staff. But it is now a shell of its former self thanks to managerial restructuring decisions which have depleted its ability to take a holistic approach essential within the Pacific community. Now only one staff member remains in the service to serve the entire country. Over in Adaptive Communications and Adaptive Technology Services (ACATS), the entire Auckland team–comprising five staff at the time–left between mid-2021 and 2022, and ACATS staff capacity for serving the in-person training needs of the country’s largest city remains depleted. 

The sighted management team have not done enough to build their relationships with the blindness community in Aotearoa. On the other hand, many members of the governing Board are BLVNZ members and indeed some are also Blind Citizens NZ members.

They have more power than any of us regular members, or past or present non-managerial staff, to steer the organisation in a direction managed with integrity. An example of their aiming to do so can be inferred from the 4 March Board meeting minutes, under which the BLVNZ Board rejects Management’s (alarming) recommendation to introduce a remuneration model linked to a “performance-based pay system”. Equally, we, as members of Blind Citizens NZ and BLVNZ, must hold the BLVNZ Board to account. Recent BLVNZ AGM and Board meeting minutes both demonstrate that Blind Citizens NZ as an organisation, as well as many individual members, are making a considerable effort to do so through the volume of correspondence and questions the Board has received, many regarding concerns about the structuring and funding of core blindness services.

Blind people fought long and hard for gaining self-determination in the governance of the Royal New Zealand Foundation ofthe Blind. The BLVNZ Board and the rest of us as members need to honour that history now. Let us do so, with love for those working within or governing BLVNZ within our community, as well as an unstinting vision of the high-quality, integrity-driven service provider BLVNZ can and must again strive to be.